The Search for a Syria Strategy
What Biden Can Learn From Trump’s Successes and Failures
When Turkey welcomed Iranian Chief of General Staff Mohammad Bagheri to Ankara in mid-August, it was the first time since the Iranian revolution of 1979 that an Iranian official of his position had traveled abroad. In an equally surprising move, Ankara announced in August that it was preparing to host the Russian military chief, Valery Gerasimov, to discuss regional security. The vigor of Turkey’s outreach to Iran and Russia, two historic rivals, ought to raise eyebrows in President Donald Trump’s White House. It not only signals an important foreign policy shift, but is an indicator that Ankara has given up on Washington.
Back in November 2016, hopes ran high in Ankara that a United States under Trump would be good for Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated Trump on his presidential victory, notably saying that his election would mark a new era in U.S.-Turkish relations. At the time, Erdogan embraced a strong anti-Iran stance in an effort to woo the new U.S. president and demonstrate Ankara’s willingness to help contain Iranian power in the broader Middle East, but specifically in Syria.
In return, Turkey hoped that the United States would reduce its support for the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). To Ankara, the YPG is an existential threat to the future of the Turkish Republic since it is considered an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant organization of Turkish Kurds that has battled Ankara for decades.
Ankara’s hopes were dashed, however, when the Trump administration decided to double down on its military backing of the YPG. In Washington’s eyes, the YPG is the only competent fighting force among Syria’s motley crew of armed groups. It is still seen as the best option for providing the much-needed local ground force for wiping out the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, Trump’s top priority in the Middle East. Ankara and Washington’s split over which group constitutes the biggest threat in Syria is troubling their alliance, and both appear firm in their stance, at least for now.
Facing what it regards as an existential threat that has been worsened by its NATO ally, the United States, Ankara is now turning to Iran and Russia in spite of its wariness toward them. Turkey has been in talks with Russia to buy its most advanced missile defense system, despite objections from NATO, and is working closely with the Kremlin in Syria.
Turkey and Iran, meanwhile, have agreed to boost military cooperation in Iraq and Syria, even though the two former rivals supported different sides of the conflicts in both countries over the last few years. Iran, Russia, and Turkey are also cooperating trilaterally on an array of issues: from jointly sponsoring the Astana Syrian peace deal to pledging to work together to drill for oil in the Caspian Sea to siding with Qatar in its conflict with its Arab cousins in the Persian Gulf.
But the main driver of Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and Iran is its fear of further Kurdish advances in Syria. Turkey and Iran both have sizable Kurdish minority communities—the region’s largest and second-largest, respectively—and they fear that Kurdish advances in the region might prompt similar demands among their own Kurds.
Ankara thus wants to craft a joint anti-Kurdish strategy in Iraq and Syria. For its part, Tehran has suddenly begun speaking out against the YPG unlike any other time before. And, unsurprisingly, both Ankara and Tehran have criticized the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum on September 25, warning that freedom for Iraqi Kurds will trigger a destabilizing wave of secession across the Middle East.
In Syria, Ankara is highly uneasy about the prospect of the U.S.-led operation against the Islamic State enabling YPG forces to seize ISIS-held territory in eastern Syria and Idlib, a northwestern town on the Turkish border that was recently captured by al Qaeda-linked groups. Given the clashes between Syrian Kurds and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Ankara is hoping that it can work with the regime in Damascus and its allies to roll back the Kurds’ territorial advances. And no two other countries have more sway over Assad than Iran and Russia, which explains Ankara’s latest overtures toward them.
In particular, Turkey has been keeping its eye on Afrin, one of the Kurdish cantons on the Turkish border. Ankara fears that the YPG might link Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria to Afrin, and thus establish a continuous Kurdish entity that stretches from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean. Ankara has accused the YPG of mounting attacks against Turkish forces and threatened military action against Afrin. But so far, any operation has stalled because the canton hosts Russian military forces. Turkish officials argue that if they can pressure the Syrian opposition, which they currently back, to withdraw from some of its held areas, Russia and Iran will turn a blind eye to a Turkish invasion of Afrin. But Ankara’s hopes may be misplaced. Many challenges lie ahead in its newfound alliance with Iran and Russia.
First of all, there is deep-rooted distrust between the parties. For centuries, Turkey was engaged in a rivalry with Iran and Russia and pursued a policy of balancing their influence in the region. Turkey’s fear of Kurdish advances has forced an opening with Iran and Russia in Syria, but deepening the rapprochement calls for a complete change of Ankara’s regional policy. It means exposing itself to further friction with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries that are opposed to Iran and abandoning its policy of curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq. Turkey’s rapprochement with the Assad regime also deepens the crisis of confidence between Turkey and its allies within the Syrian opposition, diminishing Ankara’s leverage over them. Without that influence, it is hard for Turkey to hold up its end of the deal and pressure the opposition to withdraw from the territories under its control.
Another potential problem is Russia’s stance vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurds. Moscow believes the Kurds are too important a card to play against both Ankara and Washington, and so the Kremlin is unlikely to allow a Turkish military incursion into Afrin. Without Russian consent, Turkey will not launch the military operation against the Kurdish canton that Erdogan has been hinting at.
For Iran, Turkey’s attitude shift is a boon. Cutting a deal with Ankara to tackle Kurdish separatism, which will help cement Iran’s influence in Syria and Iraq, is a clear win for Tehran. But Iran is also clear-eyed about the factors that have pushed Ankara toward it and Russia: Trump’s intention to continue working with the Syrian Kurds and the fact that the military momentum in the Syrian war is now behind Assad. Iran knows all too well that any change in those dynamics will reverse Turkey’s policy. Past efforts by Ankara and Tehran to build on their common ground have all failed due to their deep-rooted distrust of the other and the divergence in their visions for the region. These same factors could potentially hold them back from reaching a deeper rapprochement.
Turkey’s warming toward Iran is likely to further cement Tehran’s influence in Syria and Iraq. It may also undercut U.S. policy in these countries, given the hostility between the United States and Iran. This bodes ill for U.S.-Turkish relations, which are already strained. But given the fragility of the rapprochement between Turkey and its two former rivals, as well as the potential problems that lie ahead, the continuation of this reconciliation has not yet solidified. Instead of seeing Turkey as a lost case, Washington should continue to engage Ankara diplomatically and militarily.